Some good ideas for 2009Written by Maggie Thurber | Toledo Free Press Writer | firstname.lastname@example.org
Good ideas to implement for 2009:
Transparency in government: Government is best when the decisions and budgets are transparent to the public. Ohio has laws to ensure that public meetings are, indeed, open to the public. We also have laws to ensure that elected officials cannot make decisions outside of those public meetings – though we know there are ways around such requirements that while not violating the actual law do violate the intent.
The more transparent we can make government, the more accountability we can have over what is done and how. Minutes of meetings are available, though rarely are they loaded on to a website for listening to or downloading later. The Toledo Public School Board is finally steaming their meetings live – a year after former school board candidate Chris Myers tried to do so. But it is a start.
Additionally, exposing the spending of local governmental bodies, by publishing each entity’s check register on line for all to see, would increase accountability. If the City of Toledo had to publish every check written, we probably would have known much sooner about Mayor Carty Finkbeiner’s multiple ‘under $10,000′ expenditures on the Erie Street Market – maybe early enough to prevent some of them.
Knowing what our government is spending money on – and how much – might present opportunities for savings, as citizens become aware of what is being purchased and how much is being paid. By allowing any citizen to dig through an actual check registry to keep an eye on government spending, they’re likely to find more room for efficiency.
Another way to increase transparency is to do what many other governments are doing: create a simple searchable budget database for citizens. The website would allow us to search revenues, expenditures, grants, vendor contracts and most other government business. By allowing businesses to search this database of government contracts, interested vendors will have a better chance at offering competitive bids, saving money.
The site also could eliminate the need for journalists, watchdog groups and curious citizens to file public records requests that can be time-consuming and burdensome to both citizens and government officials. Instead, the information would all be readily available.
In Texas, Comptroller Susan Combs has converted the state’s massive budget into a user-friendly and comprehensive site called “Where the Money Goes.” She said website cost the state $310,000 to develop, but, so far, citizens have saved Texas government $2.3 million in her agency alone.
In these difficult economic times – and even during good financial conditions – saving taxpayer dollars and using them more efficiently for mandated services should be the primary focus of government and there’s no reason not to make this public information available to the public in a manner that will make it easier to monitor what our governments are doing.
The Buckeye Institute has a ‘sunshine’ website, www.ohiosunshine.org, which is an editable wiki tracking all kinds of government activity. Their logo is 11 million pairs of eyes ensuring good government in Ohio. It should be easy for our local governments to do the same thing.
Public meeting times: Most of the public meetings of our local governments are held during the day when most of us are working. While city council members hold district meetings in the evening and the County Commissioners periodically take their meetings ‘on the road,’ most public meetings are not held at a time conducive to public participation. Government officials will say that the cost of having public employees at meeting outside the normal work time is cost prohibitive. However, that could be easily addressed by having required personnel come in later on days they are required to be at a public meeting.
In order to be most effective, though, such changes in scheduled meeting times would have to apply to committee meetings as well as the formal business meeting, since that’s where a significant portion of the work is often done.
Public participation: We should all make an effort to be more involved in local governmental decisions. While some people regularly contact their elected officials, others never do. Elected officials work for us and, just like any boss, we need to monitor their work and provide feedback and direction. This includes correction when they make a mistake and praise when they make good decisions on our behalf.
While we are all busy in our everyday lives, the best way we can help our community move forward to take an active role in the decisions that impact us in every way.
Former Lucas County Commissioner Maggie Thurber blogs at Thurber’s Thoughts.